Schoolteachers in Abbas Kiarostami’s filmography are almost always intimidating, the first institutional authority figures presented to developing children and their first taste of rigorous punishment and enforced obedience. The first shot of Where Is the Friend’s Home? is trained on a door blowing open and closed with the breeze until the frame darkens with the spectre of a teacher (Kheda Barech Defai) who emerges like a monster, returning to his classroom to berate his students. The man’s presence is so unnerving, and he is so furious with one child, Mohamed (Ahmed Ahmedpour) for doing his homework on loose paper instead of his copybook, that the boy in question is rendered almost catatonic with fear.

The mood of oppression conjured in this opening scene explains the urgency of a plot that, out of context, appears banal. Ahmed (Babek Ahmedpour) returns home from school that afternoon to discover that he accidentally took Mohamed’s notebook home with him instead of his own, a fault of his own that will nevertheless get his friend expelled. Immediately, Ahmed’s urgency is clear, and the film matches his perspective, but the adults in the boy’s life have no such sense of the trouble that could erupt from this honest slip-up. The grown-ups in Ahmed’s community, when faced with a child seeking to do his duty to a friend, can only launch into autopilot rants about kids these days, oblivious to the fact that this boy embodies all the attributes of responsibility that they claim to never see anymore. Even Ahmed’s own mother is unable to process her child in good faith, instead assuming that he wants to trek over to Mohamed’s village solely to get out of doing his own homework. Worked into a fit, the mother can only scream “obey!” at the boy, sanding away all other nuances into pure command.

As Ahmed makes his way over to the next town to find his friend, he finds aid from his peers, who sidestep the adults’ irascible obstinance to provide assistance. The thematic implications are obvious; the same hard system glimpsed at the start of the film ultimately produces adults who talk endlessly about the idle of children while the kids themselves prove to be open, empathetic and driven in ways that should be praised. Kiarostami complicates this dichotomy toward the end of the film when Ahmed receives help from an elderly man whose infirmity makes him as much a liability as a help, but whose own status as member of an age group simultaneously picked apart and ignored by the middle-aged makes him an engaging guide even as he slows down Ahmed’s progress. But despite the largely firm roles of the characters, Kiarostami’s camera occasionally drifts away from Ahmed’s perspective throughout the film to settle on some of the mean adults to show inklings of deeper reflection. For example, Ahmed’s grandfather is much like the majority of grown-ups with whom he interacts, but the old man’s friend gently chides his pal’s stubbornness to disarm his rhetoric.

Kiarostami’s early features tended to focus on child protagonists, orienting didactic social messages around unformed, curious perspectives that rendered what might have otherwise been direct, scolding morales diffuse and unreconciled. Where Is the Friend’s Home? is the culmination of this period, and its metatextual sequels would help the director move into his later, more mature era, with its far more complex, ambiguous rumination on adult anxieties and obligations. Perched between these two phases, the film is Kiarostami’s first masterpiece, finding in the labyrinthine streets and split worlds of children and grown-ups the strains of lyricism he would only develop further with time.

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